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Nina Tandon

Research Scientist, cooper union


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If your cells were used to grow an organ in the lab, is it still "your" organ?

Live TED Conversation: Join TED Fellow Nina Tandon

Nina Tandon is a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University's Laboratory for Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering, Adjunct Professor of Electrical Engineering at the Cooper Union, and current MBA candidate at Columbia Business School. She studies ways to use electrical signals to grow artificial tissues for transplants and other therapies.

This conversation will open at 1pm EDT on October 3rd, 2011.

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    Oct 3 2011: Dear TED community: Thank you all for a very inspiring chat--the themes of intent, ownership, identity, and gratitude will be very much on my mind as I get back to work in the lab! Please do feel free to reach out to me any time if you would like to discuss these issues further, and let me know if you decide to start your own related conversation! In the meantime, may none of your non cancer cells become endangered species! Cheers! -Nina (ninatandon.com)
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    Oct 3 2011: that cell is not mine, it's Life... or CreativeCommons, if you wish :-)
  • Oct 3 2011: If you gave blood and it was then used in a transfusion, would that then be your body too? No.
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      Oct 3 2011: Hi Maya, I think you bring up a really interesting point--in a sense blood donations are our first experience with cell-based therapies! And a lot of the early debates about whether it was "OK" to donate blood back then are mirrored here--beliefs about where the "soul" resides, what parts of our body are part of "us" etc.

      I wonder, would you feel differently if a piece of your nerve tissue, heart, liver, bone marrow, fat tissue, etc, as opposed to your blood was used to grow a new body part (e.g. brain, heart, arm, leg, skin etc), where would you draw your own line? Which cells would you feel more/less attachment to, and, more importantly:

      • Oct 3 2011: Again it is intent. it depends on what you sign when the sample is given. Blood donations are given with the expressed intent of donating or giving to a bank or person. if it is taken without permission or for storage and personal future use or during a simple test then no it is yours.
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        Oct 3 2011: i still think that drawing a line is not that much difficult when donor have a choice and/or record where his/hers cells are going

        it is more important to who are you donating then what are you donating
      • Oct 3 2011: Hi Nina, if a piece of my nerve tissue, heart, liver, bone marrow, etc.. were being used specifically for the purpose of growing me a new organ, then yes, it would still be mine.... but if I donated it for the purpose of someone else to use, then it would no longer be mine. If, however, some part of me was being grown without my express consent - then my answer would be different. A lot depends on if it's done with your consent.
  • Oct 3 2011: I think that unfortunately, any product created by a patented technology becomes property of the patent owner. Therefore, the ownership of the resulting organ is not yours, and becomes a product that can be sold.
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      Oct 3 2011: hi Kevin, you bring up an interesting point about proprietary technologies, and it makes me wonder how you feel about that--how does turning a piece of yourself into a potential "product" make you feel?
      • Oct 3 2011: I personally would not do it if it became a produck. I am agianst medicine being a product. it should be available to everyone regardless of their wealth. saving lives is fundamental and basic right everyone should have.
      • Oct 3 2011: Hi Nina,

        Thank you for replying!

        How do I feel about it? I've taken something of a cynical outlook of these technologies. In this scenario, we would literally be selling ourselves out, to ourselves.

        That is a challenging circumstance of western society, especially as we've come to rely on capitalism to make distribution of life saving technologies a reality.
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    Oct 3 2011: I would think that it is your organ in the same sense that your child is "yours". It really isn't yours! It's its own!
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      Oct 3 2011: Yes Juan, this is a really great point, we do indeed have precedent for the idea of giving "birth" to something independent, don't we! But sometimes I get stuck with this idea--a colleague of mine, Dr. Michael Levin at Tufts, who has worked with an interesting creature called the planaria, which exhibits not only spontaneous regeneration (and so you can split it in half, and it becomes "two worms"), but also memory storage. Some interesting questions arise there too in terms of "how old is 'that' worm?" or "how long does 'that' worm remember how to swim through that maze?" etc... here's a link to his site! http://www.drmichaellevin.org
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      Oct 3 2011: Also Juan, a child is derived from tissue from two people, not one, so ownership is further complicated. But realistically, I think the key piece here is that the child is a whole human. Whole humans have legally defined rights, and that's why you don't own a child. This is also why the abortion debate is so heated -- at what point to reproductive cells (obviously not a whole human) or even a zygote (probably unambiguously not a whole human) morph into a whole human?

      OK, take it another way. When you go get a haircut, you are chopping off a lot of "You" you didn't have to sign a waiver... Is hair too impersonal? What about teeth at the dentist? Or a melanoma that you had removed? Or your appendix? Or a breast from a mastectomy? Or a busted heart that you had replaced with an artificial heart? At what point do you feel like you "own" this stuff?

      Did you notice that it got harder to trivialize these things, as they got more dear to life? I'm starting a new question above that breaks this even more.
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        Oct 3 2011: Well, of course the whole concept has deep philosophical issues.
        One could say that the body that we occupy is not owned but really borrowed, and that you just have to take good care of it. Things happen to it over which you have no control, for example at what age you'll go bald, or how propense are you to becoming an addict. These instructions were imprimted before you were even you! So to worry about ownership of the hair or the arm, I think is irrelevant. The arm is there, so I use it! If I take good care of it it'll probably last for a long time and be useful to me and hopefully it'll do good to others as well.
        Of course, as with everything, we are required to act responsibly and maturely when deciding about anything that may affect us or others.
    • Oct 3 2011: Yes But a child has a spirit and at some time gains the ability to decide or protect it's self. The child while ebeing part of two people assumes it's own identity and genitic code. There fore it is not you or your property. somthing created from your dna your body I would think is your property. and you could decide it's fate just as you can decide to give a kidney to someone.
  • Oct 3 2011: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks took a medical research topic out of the lab and into the living room for me. Reading the story of how the use of her cell line effected her surviving family members long after her death challenged everything I thought I understood about individual identity . I was very moved by how how access to education, economic challenges and faith all influence the perception of personhood and those same factors weigh heavily in the evolution of medical ethics.
    I am not sure the story changed my own sense of self as much as it broadened my notion of the possible variations that others might have on the sense of self. My time in the work force has been solely in medically related fields so I thought I was fairly knowledgable on issues in medical research in a general sense. I have new found interest and appreciation for the complex issues of medical research and follow stories like your own with new eyes, ears and heart.
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    Oct 3 2011: I think it depends on whether you donated those cells or not, take blood donations for example, you can't control what your blood is used for, same thing for sperm donations; those are your cells but you stopped owning them the moment you gave them away. On the other hand, the lab that is doing such experiments is bound by ethics and should inform the 'donors' about what he's planning to do with their cells and respect their opinions. Cloning is a serious matter and Ethics committees should be involved.
  • Oct 3 2011: I humbly believe that it doesn't really matter if you "own" the created organ or not, because you never did own it. In the begining it was "yours" after your fathers "donation" to society "thru" your mother. I understand that maybe the whole issue is about the industrial organs that can be created at the laboratories so its just a another product who will become "mine" if I can afford it.
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      Oct 3 2011: hi Vasilios, I think you're hitting on an important philosophical undercurrent that seems to be flowing through this conversation--who "owns" the cells within our very own person? What constitutes the idea of property itself?
      • Oct 3 2011: Hi Nina, recently I had an expeirience of a quadrple bypass surgery and as you know the transpalnted vasculars were from my own body but I had to have the economic wealth to get in the OR . Unfortunately the med induastry is (at least in Greece) philosophically positioned "If you HAVE, you will LIVE" but on the other side and to answer to your question (allways humbly and with respect) we don;t "own" none of our cells, Ibelieve that we have borrowed them from the universe and we have the obligation to treat them well and improve them so when we have to borrow them to the next generations they must be improved so scientists can make them better and suffering one day will become less and less for human beings.
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    Oct 3 2011: Nina, thanks for raising this really interesting question, and to the other commenters and you for the engaging debate.

    There are a couple of interesting thoughts around this question...
    1) Is there an emotional attachment? My guess would be that people in general would not have as much of an emotional attachment to their cells, as to an organ derived from them. So, while people don't think about what happens to their blood cells after they've donated them, they would have more of an emotional attachment with an organ which was donated after being developed from their cells. Organs are limited in number, and more defined from the general populace's point of view. e.g. we often talk about heart failure, and rarely think about the cells that died.

    2) The use of the organ and consent regarding it: If the organ is being used in the lab for research and that is after the person's consent, I think they would be happy to 'let it go'.

    The interesting aspect comes in when the commercial angle is introduced. If a company were to make organs from your cells, and sell them, would people want 'royalty' on them? What if you had a certain mutation that made your cells incredibly rare and valuable? I don't know the answer to this, but worth a thought...
    • Oct 3 2011: Now the commercial angle is one I hadn't considered. However, we can see in certain fictional situations (e.g. Repo, The Genetic Opera) that there is an anxiety about people being trapped by a commercial power over their bodies.
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      Oct 3 2011: hi Surabh, Thank you for synthesizing the emerging themes of intent (and its cousin prosperity), and identity!
  • Oct 3 2011: Wouldn't the DNA go with the cell? Does the DNA change from yours to theirs when it becomes a part of another body?
  • R K

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    Oct 3 2011: Holistically speaking, the body itself is not ours, if it was we would have full control over it and maybe become immortal. We only have partial control, we can exercise or eat right and try our best to keep it in good health. I am saying this after seeing my beloved wife being snatched away from us, she lost her long battle to cancer in spite of getting the best treatment available. She was young, just 34 years old and left behind a young son too. I have seen the helplessness in her eyes. She responded on and off, nothing was able to control the growth of those bad cells and ultimately the cells took control. Though medical science has advanced so much, we are way behind in finding a cure for all types of cancer. The researchers have still not been able to find out what gets triggered in a cell that it becomes cancerous and spreads to other cells, how that can be reversed and how that can be stopped. We still rely on primitive treatments like chemo therapy which not only kills the bad cells but healthy cells too. The scientists have not been fully able to separate good cells while giving treatment. I fully appreciate the efforts of scientists like you who are doing a noble job. Please continue the good work.
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      Oct 3 2011: hi RK, I am so sorry to hear about your loss--and it makes your point about our lives not ever really belonging to us ever the more poignant. I wish you and your son the very best, and thank you for your encouragement as we all plod along, doing our best to unravel the mysteries we have at hand with the "partial control" we have the power to exercise.
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    Oct 3 2011: I think that if I contribute the cells and you contribute your expertise, we should be partners to a certain extent. I want to be able to veto organs from my cells going into a mass murderer or a person who committed crimes against humanity in favour of a child who need it. I also think that if my cells have something particularly wonderful in them like Henrietta Lacks' did (the cells that never die) and you are able to profit from them that I should also gain something. I likely would choose to donate my portion but I would still like my contribution to be considered when profit is to be made.
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      Oct 3 2011: hi Debra, I think you bring up an interesting point--the partnership between "raw materials" and "expertise"--it echoes the foundations of so much of human "productive" activity in these times in which the problems we aim to solve are bigger than any one person!
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        Oct 3 2011: Few scientists would be willing to give up their claim to their intellectual property and ownership rights are key in most areas of life these days. Yes, the problems are bigger than one person, but why is it that those in authority think that the little guy is the disposable? Raw materials in this case are not just chemicals are they?
  • Oct 3 2011: Having in mind that in 2015 almost none of my present cells will be there, and others will be in their place, i´m not the same during my life, not only in my thinking, but also in my biologic conformation, so, what´s the matter if it´s not part of me at the moment they generate it? It´ll be mine later, or a someone else part.
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      Oct 3 2011: Luis, thank you for bringing up a point I think is really important--our bodies are SO dynamic--so many of our body's cells are constantly engaging in the cycle of life at any given moment!

      It sounds to me as if you have a generous, long-term view of the cells and molecules that make up your body--I'm interested in hearing more about how you and others define your boundaries with the world!
  • Oct 3 2011: I'd say no, an organ grown from a person's cells no longer belong to that person.

    A few commentors have pointed out the fact that the organ is grown outside of one's body. So the original donor can only claim the few donated cells, while the rest is the result of the work done to culture those cells into an organ.

    An analogy would be a child put up for adoption at birth. The biological parents can say that the newborn baby is theirs. But after being adopted, cared for, and raised by other parents, the grown individual is the child of the adpotive parents. At least that's what I would argue.
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    Oct 3 2011: If you buy a used tire for you car, is it yours because you pay for it, or does it still belongs to the original car? When a mother gives birth to a child does she own that life? many seem to think so, but no one belongs to any one, symbolically maybe. A working organ whether it may be grown outside a human body or harvested from donor , can not work or do its job without a host, so who does it belong to; the human whose cells where used to grow it or the human who maintains it? If I donate blood, is it still my blood when its injected into some one else? I think nothing really belongs to us, nothing outside our bodies. Its amazing this question its been raised, we are as territorial as any creature on earth regardless of all our scientific achievements. How easy instinct takes over...mine! mine! its all mine! lol IF ITS NOT SUSTAINING YOUR OWN LIFE, THEN IT DOES NOT BELONG TO YOU... I think.
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    Oct 3 2011: OK, Nina, most people have been responding to the "What if you grew an organ" question, and I think that's interesting. But I don't really care about organs that much -- I'm more interested in products. For example:
    An artist team has been making bone wedding rings using actual bone cells from the couple. how does ownership work in this case? Cells make lots of great materials that makers could use -- horn, nails, teeth, hair, shell. If these are made from cultures obtained from people, how does the ownership work?

    Henrietta Lacks's HeLa cells may have lead to all kinds of incredible life-saving breakthroughs, but their legality is even now almost incomprehensibly convoluted.
    The tricky thing about cells is that they can be grown outside of people. And that means that a small culture that we might not miss, can go on to do gigantic things (like cure polio, for example).

    This is definitely an interesting question. And I want the answer too. Particularly when it comes to bikes made from bone :)
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      Oct 3 2011: Dominic THANK YOU for your points! And for targeting my real motivation (from a different angle, of course) for asking my question--that is, cells can do SO MUCH! they can make SO MUCH--gigantic things, as you say!

      How do we feel about that? Do we feel a sense of connection to those gigantic things that our cells can do, outside our bodies? does it affect how we appreciate the cells that are also doing gigantic things within our very own bodies?
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        Oct 3 2011: Dominic and Nina,

        I think the "gigantic things" angle is quite intriguing! Do you have an idea about the kind of consent form terms that exist currently during such cell donations? I mean, if you're donating an organ to someone (or even for research), I think most people know what the likely end-point is for the organ. But since cells can be grown and maintained for long periods of time, and can indeed generate 'anything' (depending on the cell, of course), there likely has to be a blanket consent for all uses, right?

        Regarding whether we appreciate the cells themselves, my guess is that a scientist or a scientifically aware person probably does... For most people though, even those that are aware of cells, the organ is bigger than the cells that make it (the phrase about 'the sum being bigger than it's parts')
  • Oct 3 2011: Cells are you but not yours. Nor do I think you should have control or influence over them but neither should they be identified as you.
  • Oct 3 2011: Of course it it still your organ. how could it be anything but. the only question at that point is what did you sign. did you sign to have the organ grown for your use or to be used by others or for research.
    Anyone who took and grew the part with out your concent is in violation of numerous laws and standards.
  • Oct 3 2011: I would say no, if it is intended for someone, it would belong to them once it has been attached but it wouldn't belong to the source.

    Declaring ownership because it was created from you is a slippery slope. Are children owned by their parents? If human cloning became a reality, would clones belong to the one being cloned?
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    Oct 3 2011: Wonder why this great question didn't get more attention.
    This is a difficult one...
    To sort the possible ethical dilemma I assume there is plenty of legal paperwork to sign before donating cells (including release perhaps?)
    But you are probably more informed on this than us... what is the official position?
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      Oct 3 2011: hi Karina,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments! Yes this is not a question with an easy answer! As you point out, sure, any time we get a biopsy, we're going to have to sign an informed consent document--but as in the case of many "Terms and Agreements" many of us have not yet explored the implications that often lie beyond the text!

      So, even "official positions" notwithstanding there are a lot of interesting unanswered questions--what WOULD our hypothetical attachment be to something derived from us, but grown outside of us? What ideas, morality, ethics etc WOULD we want those "Terms and Agreements" to reflect?

      I'm not sure I have my own answer for this, but am really interested in hearing the thoughts that develop from this conversation, as well as seeing how these ideas mature along with our field of research.
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    Oct 2 2011: It's a organ for who it needs....
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    Oct 3 2011: You pointed out 3 different examples of people making money off my blood, and these aren't the only ones: T use your words: "maitenance and transportation of said units very regulated and not cheap. The crossmatching is also an added cost."

    I'm not proud of the point I made, but it does cross my mind.
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    Oct 3 2011: I would say so. Just because your cells have been taken out of you, they do not cease to be yours. Even if you give the eventual organ as a donor, it will only belong to them on a superficial level.
  • Oct 3 2011: A very interesting topic indeed.. your cells belong to your body, not "You".. may sound a little philosophical..:)
  • Oct 3 2011: I would have to say no. Will True has bought up the major points in my mind. I would like to mention identical twins... Both have the same genetic make up. Does the twin who was birthed first own the second?
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    . . 100+

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    Oct 3 2011: ......I would definitely own a clone of Tom Brady.

    Will True - super cool name !!
  • Oct 3 2011: As my cell is containg my unique DNA, it will affect the new body or organ..my characteristics will be transfered to the new body.. it is anyhow , my organ..
  • Oct 3 2011: I think I have claim to the cells that formed and developed in my body. With that being said I have no problem with donating blood and organs, as long as I know that I am donating them. People should be aware of what is happening to their bodies. If a clone of me was made, genetically she would be identical to me. The environment in which she would grow up in would not be identical to the one I was raised in. There would be differences between us. Just think about how neural connections form. Different interactions with the environment lead to neural differences between people. Cloned organs are not going to be exactly identical to ones developed in my body and even if they were, they were not developed in my body. I neither believe that I would have claim over a cloned "me" nor any lab generated organs. I do believe that some form of consent should be required from the one donating cells but donation does not equal entitlement to what is developed from the donation. The organs are not you.
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      Oct 3 2011: hi Sarah, I agree with your sentiment--I really do hope more and more of us become more and more aware of the miracles that are going on inside our bodies every day!

      I wonder how our society's ideas about donation will change as our collective awareness shifts, in conjunction with ever evolving technological capabilities?
      • Oct 3 2011: I think education is crucial for changes in societal views on donation. I can not even fathom how a society with more information about how life works could deny the gloriousness of donation.